5G mobile broadband on the horizon as Ofcom prepares to free up 700MHz spectrum

Having consulted on the matter, the regulator is now making its first tentative steps in preparing for yet another digital switchover. This time, however, moving digital TV views over to new spectrum should be a much easier task.
Written by David Meyer on

Ofcom is pushing ahead with plans to allow future mobile broadband services to run on spectrum currently used for digital television.

The spectrum, in the 700MHz band, will most likely be used for '5G' services, the regulator said, given that it will take until 2018 for international agreements on its usage to click into place.

In the US and Asia, it is already used for 4G services — the iPhone 5 famously supports 700MHz rather than the 800MHz spectrum coming up for auction in the UK — and a decision was taken at the World Radio Conference in February to free it up for mobile broadband across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Ofcom launched a consultation on the matter in March, and the results are now in. The regulator said on Friday that it would go along with the internationally agreed plan, and work on preparing for the re-allocation.

"We are now ploughing ahead on the basis that this will be happening," an Ofcom spokesman told ZDNet UK. "We will be sitting down with our international colleagues and discussing a global spectrum plan."

First steps

Not much can be done for now, as the official global allocation of 700MHz for mobile broadband will only take place after the next World Radio Conference in 2015. More international agreements will have to follow that step, too, so there is little chance of the spectrum being freed up before 2018.

When that happens, digital terrestrial TV services in the UK will have to shift over to another band. However, Ofcom insists that this would not involve anything like the monumental 'digital switchover' effort that has been required to free up 800MHz for mobile broadband.

"People wouldn't need to get new set top boxes," Ofcom's spokesman said. "For most people, this would mean retuning their Freeview equipment when the frequency changes."

However, he added, some people may need new wideband aerials to cope with the switchover. That is one area where Ofcom can start taking practical steps now, by liaising with aerial installation bodies to make them "aware for the potential future need for wideband aerials", he said.

Capacity demand

The need for the new spectrum will come from the explosion in mobile broadband use, as smartphones and tablets become even more prevalent and heavily used.

Also on Friday, Ofcom published an Infrastructure Report update that suggested demand for mobile data could be 80 times greater in 2030 than it is today. The regulator said current usage totalled around 20 million gigabytes a month in the UK alone.

According to Ofcom, the average mobile customer used 245MB of data in June this year, around twice as much as they used in the year before.

On the fixed-line side, Ofcom said the average downlink speed had risen 69 percent in one year, from 7.5Mbps to 12.7Mbps, while average monthly consumption had increased 35 percent year-on-year from 17GB to 23GB.

The regulator added that around seven percent of UK premises were now connected to super-fast broadband, with such fibre-based connectivity being available to almost two-thirds of the country.


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